Full disclosure: A deeper look at Iron Man from Marvel NOW

Iron Man interior art by Greg Land

Iron Man interior art by Greg Land

Now that the first arc of Kieron Gillen’s current run of Marvel NOW’s Iron Man is complete, I’d like to take a moment to discuss that. As I did with Captain Marvel into the first few issues of its current run, sometimes it’s nice to slow down and really dig into a title. When you review month-to-month, and sometimes bimonthly in this case, it can be difficult to really step back and judge a series on its merits and intentions, strengths and weaknesses. With a title like this one, which has received its fair share of criticism so far, it can be equally difficult to be objective when your little fangirl heart is weighed down by expectation, and you fear your reviews might be getting colored by all the Greg Land jokes. So setting all of that aside, let’s talk about Tony Stark.

Let me start off by saying this about Kieron Gillen: I love him. I wasn’t all that familiar with his work before this summer, when my girlfriend Melissa carefully explained Phonogram in loving and painstaking detail. After this, excited to see the books he was writing for Marvel NOW, I began doing what I always do with writers I’m interested in: I went to the internet and stalked him like a wounded gazelle. And you know what? I love this guy. From Twitter to Tumblr, from blog posts to interviews, I find myself endlessly entertained and excited by his world and his work. But it’s not just his writing that draws me in, but the way he talks about writing. This is a guy who truly cares about the characters he writes, and crafts these wonderful little posts and statements of intent about what he wants to do with them, like they’re real people sitting around in his living room having coffee. As a writer, that is so fascinating, and while it sounds like I’m just congratulating Gillen on his continued existence, this has everything to do with Iron Man for me as a reader.

This book hit the shelves with a lot of big promises: It would be the thinking man’s Iron Man. It would be a more human, in-depth portrait of Tony Stark. It would discuss things that most writers never touch. Of course, coming right off Matt Fraction’s legendary (and I don’t throw that word around lightly, by the way) run, it’s hard for anybody to match up. Keep in mind that Fraction and Gillen are telling two entirely different stories, about two different ways of looking at Tony Stark. I loved Fraction’s Tony, for all the ways he’s pulled apart and reassembled this character in satisfying and interesting reinterpretations. To me, Fraction’s Tony always seemed more emboldened, more assured, more in control, even when he wasn’t. Gillen’s Tony, however, is at a crossroads. Yes, this Tony is charming. I’m hard-pressed to find a fan who doesn’t find Tony Stark charming to one degree or another, even if it is just a front and he’s a total existential mess inside. This just comes with the territory. But this Tony is, as we’ve seen so far, working on himself.

Only five issues in, and we see this Tony taking inventory. He’s contemplative. He’s unsure of what he’s doing. He’s building new suits and new AIs and trying to sort himself out. He’s faced with death and disillusionment, and he’s dealing with it by hanging out in his workshop and explaining his philosophy on grilled cheese sandwiches to Pepper. To me, this is a Tony in the middle of a journey even he’s not too sure about. Carrying that theme, there are a lot of good moments in this book that shed a little light on how Tony operates. Issue four, for example, deals with Tony’s relationships with women. Just after being chastised by Pepper for viewing all women as objects, unable to tell them apart but for their hair colors, Tony is faced with a horde of identical female Extremis enhanciles that he has to put down. (I’m hoping that this was a clever visual metaphor, and not just bad pencils from Greg Land, but I’m going to try to give these guys the benefit of the doubt here.) As a reader, this is one of those things that make me love Gillen’s Tony Stark, and here’s why.

For me, Playboy Tony is my least favorite aspect of Tony Stark’s character. It’s that ghost in his backstory that we can’t seem to get rid of, because we all accept it as vaguely amusing that he has bad relationships and sleeps with everything that moves. Outside of his wonderfully complex relationship with Pepper, in recent years I don’t often see many writers giving Tony much credit in that department, which really over-simplifies the issue. Readers tend to assign negative connotations to the rest of his behavior (the alcoholism, the self-loathing, the father issues, the occasional bout of unchecked megalomania) and consider these things that need to be addressed or remedied in order for him to grow. As fans, we want him to stay sober and to not hate himself, but we’re still content to see him bury his problems in nameless, faceless women (often portrayed as stupid or vapid) we know he doesn’t care about and won’t remember in the morning. We accept his addiction to alcohol as a problem, but not his potential addiction to sex.

This really bugs me, because I know that Tony Stark could get any girl that he wants. He’s Iron Man, he’s a billionaire, he’s a genius — I get it. But what I’m far more interested in seeing is a Tony who can get any woman, anywhere, anytime, and chooses not to. Maybe he just, you know, wants to go home and read a book? Catch up on Grey’s Anatomy? Sex is a powerful tool at a writer’s disposal, and I tend to think that in the case of Iron Man, it hasn’t always been used to its fullest potential. Yes, Gillen’s Tony is still a playboy, but at least now he’s thinking about his decisions and trying to better understand them. I happen to like that a lot.

(As an aside, the scene in the bar in issue one, where we see the blonde is playing Tony as much as he’s playing her? So good.)

Small moments like these carry a lot of weight in this book, as Tony learns a little every issue, and we see him grow just that tiny bit more. Without the more real-life consequences of rehab, or AA, or even the threat of imprisonment looming overhead to spur Tony’s personal change, the book relies on these scenes. It’s subtle, but it’s there. This is Tony Stark, slowly but surely, moving toward self-realization. Which brings me, inevitably, to the ultimate drawback of this book so far: The format.

Now, I do appreciate what Gillen’s doing. As a writer, I get it, and I kind of think it’s awesome. It’s a throwback to the classic comic and cartoon serial: Self-contained episodic adventures, leading the character to a series of objective-based conclusions, and throwing out clues to a larger story in the future. The problem I have, however, is that it feels misplaced here. In five issues, we’ve barely scratched the surface of this book’s long-term goals, and are instead left with a somewhat disjointed series of events with a vague theme of self-discovery. As a fan, I’m disappointed, but as a writer, I get it, and understand the decisions that drove this format in the first place.

As we all know, this title is being written in the wake of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This isn’t for guys like you and me, who have known and loved this character for years. It’s for new fans, and casual fans, who came to know this character through Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark and Joss Whedon’s Avengers. Marvel wants a stream-lined and accessible title for these potential new readers, because, well — Iron Man is huge right now. He’s on t-shirts and lunchboxes and backpacks, and in at least three cartoons that I’m immediately aware of. Iron Man is a cash-cow, and The Powers That Be want to keep him easy to understand. I get that. That’s what Marvel NOW is all about. I’m just not sold that this format is the correct way to go, as I see this model being applied with more success in other titles.

Rick Remender’s Captain America, for example, is another title I’m reading from the re-branding. The same character with his own film series and action figure line has been radically altered from what casual fans know of the MCU. This is a fairly apocalyptic book, where Steve Rogers is transported to Dimension Z and forced to survive by his wits and resolve alone. He spends a year raising a rescued boy he’s named Ian and struggling to keep them alive in the face of ever-present danger and almost certain death. This book is harsh and personal and quietly compelling, and flies in the face of “safe,” “easy” storytelling. In the wake of the MCU, and this influx of new fans, I find it interesting that these are the stories about Captain America that are being told. This very personal narrative style is also going on in two other books I’m really enjoying right now, Hawkeye from Matt Fraction and Captain Marvel from Kelly Sue DeConnick. Even as they operate under the Marvel NOW umbrella, these books mostly rely on the episodic arc that Iron Man is drawing from, while still retaining their own sense of continuity and thematic sensibility.

In Iron Man, we’re still lacking that sense of cohesion, and to larger, potentially more damaging extent, that sense of readership loyalty. Fans are accustomed to a certain level of emotional subtext and personal continuity within their favorite stories, whether in characterization or overarching tone. Obviously there are going to be differences between this iteration of Iron Man and its predecessors, but in this rush to make Iron Man safe and accessible, it seems some heart got lost along the way. Yes, Gillen’s Iron Man focuses on smaller snapshots in the life of Tony Stark, as he solves puzzles and goes on adventures and tries to work on himself as a human being. Even for it, the book almost feels sanitized, taken out of the context of the larger Marvel pantheon and existing in a strange vacuum. Almost all solo titles operate in a vacuum to one degree or another, but this Iron Man feels very far removed from everything else that we know of the character and his history. So often it’s just him, Pepper, and the Villain of the Week, bang bang bang, action and adventure, then it wraps up with a nice moral lesson and Tony jets off to the next issue. It’s so small, it’s microscopic, and as readers we want things to be a little more macroscopic. Is there a place in the middle where these two can meet? I hope so.

All of this said, taking the mountains of Greg Land jokes aside, I do actually enjoy this series. I do love these pow-wow scenes between Tony and Pepper, where Tony contritely explains why he does the strange, stupid, and too-often hurtful things that he does, and promises to do better. I do love Tony’s narration in battle, putting a personal context to his life as a superhero. I do love that Tony makes grilled cheese in the workshop, and wants to go into space, and wants to do right by Maya’s memory, even if he has to do ugly things to get it done. I do love this second, confusing, middle-aged puberty Tony’s going through, because if anybody can steer him toward an interesting personal journey, it’s Kieron Gillen. There are so many things I truly love about this book, and about Gillen’s plans for Iron Man, and the disappointments feel almost crushing in comparison. I am of two minds about this Iron Man, as a writer and a reader. Do I recommend the book? No, because I have issues with the format, but also yes, because I’m so fascinated to see what might happen next. This is a book that needs to find sure footing, and by moving into the next arc, and expanding on the larger context of the Marvel Universe around Tony,  it hopefully will.

In the end, I just have to accept that I have a love/hate relationship with this book, just as I do with the character himself. Some days I love Tony Stark, others I throw the book across the room and scream. But, hey — that’s what being a fan is all about, right?

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